Working on the Road: A Book Review for Professional Nomads

By Philip Brewer on 1 May 2015 0 comments

Nora Dunn's new Working on the Road may not be the right choice for those looking for a vicarious thrill, fantasizing about a more free life. But for those looking for actionable information — who are ready to make the jump and are looking for practical tips for avoiding missteps as they change their lives — it's worth the read.

And I should know: I took several different stabs at arranging my life to enable living as a digital nomad. (For more, see my Three Paths to Being a Digital Nomad, which ought to provide some context as a reviewer of this book. See also the disclaimer at the bottom.)

The Guide to Working on the Road

The book is very much aimed exactly where the title suggests — at someone working on the road, or planning to. If your plans are for merely going on the road or living on the road, there will still be useful material here for you, but you'll be wasting more than half the book.

On the other hand, the book's focus on work is by no means limited to any stereotype of the sort of work that's typical for the digital nomad. No kind of work is excluded, meaning that this book would be ideal for anyone whose goal is to be productive on the road. For example, I think it would be excellent for someone preparing to take a sabbatical (a sabbatical in the traditional sense — taking six to 12 months away from a regular job in order to undertake a significant piece of research or complete a major project). It would also be excellent for someone who thinks getting away for a year would help them finish a novel.

With working on the road being the focus, you won't be surprised to learn that's where the book starts — with a look at two big categories of working on the road: location-independent work, like freelancing or writing, and then work that needs to happen in a particular place, but where the places are accepting of people who come from afar and plan to move on, such as teaching English or working in the many branches of the hospitality industry.

There are sections on brainstorming for the sorts of things that you might need to do, and on how you might quickly develop a few extra skills that would enable working on the road (either as a complement to the skills you have, or as a whole new thing). There's also a good section on the sort of abilities, work habits, and self-knowledge you need to have if you're going to be successful.

Cost of Living on the Road

One of the few bits of the book that I have a beef with — and only because it's a personal peeve of my own — is the section on the cost of living on the road. Nora points out that, "Traveling full-time can actually cost far less than it does to live in one place."

This is true in the strictly technical sense that you can always find a more expensive way of life than the one you want to call less expensive. (It's exactly the same, except we buy three times as many toothbrushes.) It's also true in the deeper sense, that almost anyone can live a lot more cheaply if they're prepared to dramatically change how they live, and the shift to living on the road is going to be the sort of dramatic change that enables all sorts of economies.

I just always bristle at the implication that you couldn't just as easily — in fact, more easily — find all those economies without going on the road if you're prepared to make the same sort of dramatic change in the way you live. Let your lease run out, sell your car, donate all your stuff beyond what fits in a suitcase, and then rent a cheap room a few miles from your old neighborhood.

There are other savings besides those that come from choosing to make a dramatic change toward a cheaper lifestyle. One big one that is often a source of savings for people going on the road is that if you travel to a place where people are poor, things are going to be cheap.

However: I'd be willing to bet that there are places where people are poor very close to where you live now.

Most of the other sources of cost savings for being on the road are very specific as to time or place. For example, favorable exchange rates can make particular places very cheap, if your income (from your work on the road, or your savings and investments) is in a strong currency but your expenses are in a weak one. There can be some large tax savings, but they are highly dependent on exactly where you live and exactly how you earn your money.

Finally, there's the fact that being someplace that's really different provides novelty that can substitute for entertainments that you'd otherwise spend money on.

I've written about all this before, in an article called Live Abroad for Less (Also at Home). As I say, it's peeve of mine.

But the fact that Nora manages to push this precise button of mine should not be held against the book, which actually has a great section on managing your expenses. It presents examples of several different households — single folks and families, people who travel a lot and those who have a home base for extended periods, all at a range of different income levels.

Work-Life Balance on the Road

The section on work-life balance while on the road is excellent. In fact, it takes exactly the tone I'd have liked to see Nora take for the section on how it can be cheaper to live on the road. Working on the road does not magically give you work-life balance. Whether you're on the road or not, work-life balance comes from the choices you make about what work you do and what you expect from yourself. Just like with living cheaper, choosing to work on the road is inevitably a dramatic change in your life, and making a dramatic change gives you space to choose a better work-life balance. But it still comes down to your choices.

The stories Nora tells about her successes and failures along the way to work-life balance are instructive. She provides good tips on striving for a proper balance. (The tips are not much different than you'd come up with for someone who's not on the road, which is kind of my point, but they're good tips.)

There's a section on dealing with the fact that you'd probably had great expectations for the magic improvement in work-life balance that was supposed to come from working on the road, and dealing with the disappointment you'll probably face. There are specific tips for people on the road with kids, covering things like education.

There is some advice that's very specific to being on the road — for example, suggesting that housesitting can provide welcome relief for someone who's been staying in hotels or hostels or tents or RVs, and praising the advantages of slow travel.

Heading Out

There are two sections on things to do and how to do them, roughly divided into things to do when heading out and things to do before heading out.

This one section alone may make the book worth buying, for a certain class of reader. If you know you want to hit the road, know what kind of work you're going to do, and know how to support yourself on the amount of money you're going to have available, there are still some practical issues to sort out, and this chapter provides a solid overview of a bunch of them:

  • Dealing with official documents when you're halfway around the world from your file cabinet
     
  • Deciding what kinds of insurance you need
     
  • Managing your cash, and paying your bills when you don't have a local bank
     
  • Managing your investments when you don't have a fixed address
     
  • Figuring out visa rules as they apply to people who will be doing work of one sort or another

The material is nicely organized with a good focus on the arrangements to be made before you head out.

There's also a focus on things to do that will help enable a return to working at a fixed location, because you might want back into the world of working at a regular job for a regular paycheck. There are things you can do up front that will make this step easier, and this section mentions some. (I wrote an article with my own suggestions, aimed at people who were going to be working on the road for a specific length of time, who know they will want to option to return, called Fund Your Own Sabbatical.)

And there's a good list of things that are easier to do while you still have a day job, such as applying for credit cards.

Tools

There are two sections on tools, divided between regular tools and business tools.

The first is about the tools you'll want for everyday stuff (such as a phone) and for work stuff (such as a computer). It's about figuring out what you need, pros and cons of various choices, practicalities (like cables), and so on.

This section covers things like:

  • Backups for people working on the road
  • Information security
  • Getting paid on the road

The second section covers the broad category of things that working on the road make less predictable, more necessary, or more expensive than they'd be for someone working in a fixed location — internet fees, hiring an accountant, shipping and receiving, etc.

Expanding the Package

The review above covers just the book. There are additional resources that can be purchased with it, including some special-topic articles on things like dealing with your stuff, paying your bills, working on the road with a family, and dealing with property. There are a couple of interviews by Nora (one of someone who built up and then sold a personal finance blog, one of parents working on the road with kids), provided in both MP3 and transcript form. That material is all good. Whether it's worth the extra cost depends on whether it addresses something you personally really need to know.

This book is perfect for someone who has gone beyond the stage of just thinking that working on the road sounds cool, but who has not yet figured out any of the details — what they might do, how they might live, and where they should start.

Buy your copy of Working on the Road today!

Disclaimers

Nora Dunn is a fellow Wise Bread writer, and a friend of mine. The publisher provided a review copy of the book, and Wise Bread paid me to write this article (same as they pay for other articles I write). Wise Bread policy does not allow writers to benefit from affiliate links (any payment from the affiliate link will go to Wise Bread, not to me), and I have no other financial interest in the success of the book.

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